Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jonathan Franzen and a Fear of Noise

Jonathan Franzen, like any curmudgeon, is eminently easy to make fun of. From his hyperbolic denunciations of social media and e-book readers to his passion for birds to that whole Oprah thing... he's an easy target.

So I was extremely excited about seeing him speak in person this past Thursday. I even live-tweeted some quotes, which I knew would probably annoy him intensely considering he called Twitter "unspeakably irritating":

I'm a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen the writer, but could not have a more different worldview than Jonathan Franzen the social commentator. Where Jonathan Franzen loathes e-books I see vast potential, where he fears social media I've made it a career, and where his worldview and human nature is rather bleak with a touch of anger, I've been described as being "posi-core."

And yet, after seeing Franzen speak... I finally think I get where he's coming from.

The moment that made it click for me was almost a throwaway. He was talking about that feeling you have after you've stayed up an hour too late reading a book, and how much better you feel after doing that than when you've stayed up too late watching the World Series of Poker.


I honestly have no idea why that made it click for me, but for some reason it did. I think what makes Franzen tick is a fear of noise.

What's apparent from hearing Franzen talk is how deeply he thinks about everything. He was reading his remarks, but was still thinking about his words as he was talking. He isn't afraid to let twenty seconds go by as he thinks about how he will respond to a question. He is extremely self-aware and is constantly self-examining his motives and hangups. He opened his talk by saying, "I'm here because I'm being paid to be here."

There's a palpable Franzenian weariness and almost exhaustion in all this thinking. He said of his process, "When I'm writing I don't want anyone else in the room - including myself."

But I can see why someone who thinks so deeply and intensely about things would be wary of social media, which he referred to dismissively as "that stuff." I can see why someone who enjoys deep thinking would also be passionate about bird watching, with its waiting, long treks, and elusive moments of glory.

And you know what? If this is what he believes (I don't presume to speak for him), he has a point.

We do live in a world of tremendous distraction. We have all but eliminated boredom. Every stoplight is a moment to check our e-mail, every wait in a supermarket line is a chance to sneak a peek at Twitter, every time our dinner companion uses the restroom is a chance to Instagram.

I intentionally try and just sit and stare out the window on my bus rides to and from work in order to refocus my eyes and let my head clear, and yet I rarely make it the whole way without checking something on my phone.

Societal pressures are on more and more work, more and more content, more and more connection, more and more communication.

Where is the pressure for more and more thinking?

Franzen's process takes time. He takes years to write books. The initial plot of The Corrections was practically a caper. Then he took some minor characters and rewrote it to feature them. Then he took another seemingly minor character and rewrote around that. It seems like the only thing the final draft shared with the first was the title.

Franzen thinks. I think he fears a world where people don't.


Kaytie said...

Thank you for this.

Matthew MacNish said...

I can't comment on Franzen or his work, but I think you have a point about life. I tend to be a deep thinker myself, sometimes even to the level of meditation.

I need my silence. After all, silence is golden, and duct tape is silver.

Bryan Russell said...

Time alone to think can be a treasure. I listen to music and ebooks on my commute sometimes, but there are days when I simply sit in the silence. The brain is a wonderful thing, if we care to listen.

Rebecca Taylor said...

I have read all his books and love them. How amazing that you got to hear him speak.

Mieke Zamora-Mackay/@MZMackay said...

I fear that too.

This was a great post.

Mirka Breen said...

You know what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about the rich? That’s what I think when I think of writers like Franzen- different from you and me who waddle in the lowlands. (Well, just me maybe, but you get my meaning.) Franzen inhabits that high ground where few get to be. He has earned it, and did it his way.
And why he strikes a nerve is because when we’re done flailing from down there, we know he’s telling the truth. Kind of like a Jeremiah for our times.

Mr. D said...

Middle School teachers already know that deep thinkers are a rare breed.

Authoress Anonymous said...

I've got to deeply respect this man, even though I haven't read any of his stuff, regrettably. I do find Facebook handy and blogging is fun because I get to type down my thoughts. But ask anyone who knows me, I'm rarely on Facebook for a long period of time, I don't have a twitter and I rarely use my phone. I prefer to think. And I also fear a world where people no longer do. I see some of that happening right now.

Stephanie Garber said...

I've never read anything by Jonathan Franzen, but I loved your post. It was a little scary how true everything you wrote is.

DearHelenHartman said...

The time to think about what you are writing is a luxury lost to most of us. Oddly, the thing he dislikes, ebooks, may be the thing to bring him back.

Gretchen said...

I have actually appreciated his social commentary more than his fiction. I find it interesting that you see yourself as so different from him, Nathan. Yes, there's the whole social media thing, but that's nothing, really. You're both thinkers; that trait just manifests itself differently in each of you.

Thanks for this post. Insightful stuff. I'd love to hear him speak some day.

Nan said...

My husband is a thinker--people often miss his great insights because they won't wait for him to think before he speaks. Like Franzen, he eschews social media, but he does e-read! It's more about not having any more space to store print editions though, and not particularly about loving his Kindle Fire.

Jory said...

I get where Franzen is coming from, and while I could never give up my smartphone and everything that comes with it, I am often reminded (usually when I leave my phone at home by mistake) how life goes on even without Twitter, Facebook, etc. Sometimes I enjoy taking a day or two off from social media. But give it up completely? Never. I just have to be careful not to let it replace human interaction and quality reflection time. And I should probably stop tweeting while driving, even if I am using voice-to-text.

Fiona said...

I understand that part of what he is saying. That said, he strikes me as very New York and you strike me as very California.

I live in New York (and love many things about it), but in terms of attitude, I think California is best!

D.G. Hudson said...

I understand Franzen. I agree with his assessment of the 'noise' of Twitter and Facebook.

"Franzen thinks. I think he fears a world where people don't."

I do too.

Rick Daley said...

I really enjoyed The Corrections. I don't have an opinion on the controversy over some of his remarks, other than being aware it exists.

I love ebooks, but I just don't get Twitter.

I like to have some music playing when I write. Pandora Radio, usually. It can serve as white noise, helping to block out other distractions.

I think about my books when I run. There's a zen to the rhythm of footsteps and breaths that helps clear the slate and look at plotlines and characters from a perspective you can't get when you're deep in the manuscript itself, distracted by the line edits and other minutia.

Shannon Dittemore said...

LOVE this post!

Serenity said...

Good grief, this post is brilliant. I love what you say about him here, but mostly I love that you have proven a point that cannot be driven home enough. We've got to take the time to understand each other. We don't have to agree - but it's so beautiful when we can understand. I just love this. Love, love, love.

Roger Floyd said...

Keep in mind that the important thing in writing is the writing itself. It makes little difference whether the book is published traditionally on paper or electronically on a reading tablet. What matters is the words and how they are formed into sencences and paragraphs and chapters and so on. Whether you like e-readers or despise them you still have to write a good story and come up with good characters.

Stephsco said...

@Roger Floyd: exactly!

I agree on the buzz of culture - sometimes we need time to just think.

I accomplish the most with my writing with no TV or music on in the background. You'd think this was a no-brainer, but it's instinct for me to turn *something* on as filler that half the time I don't realize it.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think he has a legitimate fear. As a culture, we've forgotten how to sit still and be silent. We use those little moments to connect to social media or other distractions (far more frequently than we need to) because we're afraid of being bored. We don't know how to take a few moments to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts. I resisted getting a smart phone until last week because I was sick of seeing people browsing theirs instead of interacting with the world, and already I've had to resist the temptation to get too sucked in.

I do love social media, though. It is a useful tool for communication and information discovery. However, we need balance in our lives. Total absorption in the online world *can* limit our ability to be quiet and think deeply, but there are also enough benefits that I can't wholeheartedly endorse Franzen's fear. We need to learn to live with the noise and to take breaks from it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points - and cool for you to admit some dissent on your part.
There are different ways to be a thinker, so we must be careful when classifying this one or that one. The question for me is: are these social media and little devices withering our ability to think autonomously? How convenient for the purveyors of the dominant social paradigm if they are.

ryandake said...

but maybe people feel better after staying up too late reading than they do watching poker because reading is socially approved, and poker is not?

and a lot of reading is no better than noise, too.

i personally don't tweet or FB or any of that, and i keep a blog just for book reviews for my Uncle John. i don't have a cell phone. i don't want any of that because i dislike noise, precisely as you say.

and i too fear a world where people don't think, but i suspect that is just human nature--lots of people don't, and never did. social media is just a highly refined tool for not-thinking, if that's what one wants to use it for.

but this blog post is proof that social media can also actually make a lot of people think :-)

thanks, nathan--you totally rock!

CageFightingBlogger said...

I met him in 2010. He didn't smile when we had our pic taken (partly because my phone was playing up).

Anonymous said...

I took a class from him in the mid-90s. He was really, really passionate about literature and good writing. No matter how curmudgeonly he appears in his public persona, I remember his love of words and books.

Lauren Monahan said...

Thanks. I just heard John Irving speak at ALA & I loved hearing his close. He talked about how his son claims that he writes what he fears, and how he things most great writers do. I wonder if great writing often comes in that painful silence we like to avoid with media--that silence where we are forced to deal with what we fear most. Just a thought. Thanks again for sharing.

Jaimie said...

Brilliant. This is brilliant. I can tell you enjoyed writing this.

Maya said...

Love it. I'm as addicted to the internet as anyone (I'm here, right?). Yet I crave those moments too. I often shut off the wi-fi on my laptop as I write. The fun. But there is something precious in letting go of it.

GSMarlene said...

I think it is very valid to be afraid of a world where very few people really think.

I think I straddle both worlds, probably thinking too deeply for some people's comfort and not quite fully committed to all "that stuff".

Great post.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Franzen may despise ereaders, but that doesn't stop him (or rather his publisher) from making his books available on Kindle. :)

I can't argue with someone who values deep thinking. And there's a place for curmudgeon's in the world, if nothing else, to remind us of what we are leaving behind, and to think twice about that.

It's sad to think that deep thinking must somehow lead to such despair. I'm too much of an optimist to believe that's the only possible outcome.

JohnO said...

I disagree with him about ereaders, but I think he has a point about social media, which is basically that it's a low-common denominator activity in an culture that's already got too many things competing for your attention.

Lisa Ahn said...

I agree about the noise. I love twitter, have a blog, and I've published in on-line journals. Given all that, I still feel that I sometimes spend a great deal of time on social media, when I could have read a book. I'm still looking for a way to blend social media into my days without becoming overwhelmed with noise. For me, the answer isn't to eliminate it completely. But I don't know what the answer is.

Clare WB said...

This hits me when in the rare time when the electricity is off. Totally off. No buzzes, hums, or whirs annihilating the beautiful silence.

thewriteedge said...

I don't necessarily enjoy Franzen's work, but I fully agree with the idea that we should all -- really -- shut off the technology for a little while every day. I used to obsess about my email, and then I started doing a simple thing. When I've worked my one or two hours in the middle of the afternoon, I take my laptop and walk upstairs with it. I deposit said laptop on my night stand in its usual spot, and then I walk back downstairs and immediately engage in something non-technology related -- cooking, playing with my kids, laundry (I don't have a smart phone, so I can't check email on it and can leave it downstairs.) This has dramatically improved my obsession with checking email and staying online, it's helped me avoid those blinding headaches at the end of the day from staring at a screen too long, it's allowed me to give back to my family by being fully engaged with them without being distracted by my computer, and I find myself refreshed and recharged when I return to my computer in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. All good things. Sometimes physically removing the distraction is all it takes to make a change.

Mira said...

Very thought provoking post, thank you. And I don't mean that in an ironic sense. :)

I agree with Serenity. I think the very best thing about this post is it models empathy: by putting yourself in the shoes of someone who thinks very differently about something and trying to understand their perspective, and it's validity. That's challenging, but very worth it.

Marilyn Peake said...

Jonathan Franzen is a genius. Like you, I have great respect for him as a writer. And Franzen’s not the only gifted writer who avoids the Internet. George R. R. Martin recently complained rather humorously about how much he hates updating his blog, and then gave one of his infrequent updates. I was shocked to discover how many more publications he’s working on in addition to A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series. I swear that man writes more quickly than I read! Every book in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is long and complicated! Here’s his recent blog post, Monkeys on My Back. I have to admit I felt ashamed and saddened over my completely inferior level of productivity in comparison to Martin’s current list of upcoming publications, and those are in addition to everything else he’s already published. I’ve been traveling a lot the past few months and have slowed down quite a bit on my Internet posting. I hope to resume more chatting on the Internet in September, but I’m going to take breaks like I did when I was traveling. There’s a lot of really great stuff on the Internet, but there’s also a tremendous amount of noise and polarization on both the Internet and TV that takes away the opportunity for deep and reflective thought. I think that to add depth to one’s thinking, there needs to be an abundance of quiet, thoughtful, reflective time.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE his work, but not his attitude. And I can't live without checking into foursquare at least five times a day. Social media allows us to think in a different way. It's not that we're not thinking at all. I can get just as lost in thought looking at maps on foursquare as he can looking for birds. And, if he hadn't made the money he did on the first book he wouldn't have been able to spend ten years writing the next. Luck played a large part in his life.
And we should All be so lucky.

Vero said...

Huh... very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your opinion on this.

KG Arndell said...

I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, there are so many voices telling new writers, "You've simply GOT to be on social media." And I understand the reasons for (and potential benefits of) building a platform. Also social media can be a lot of fun.

But for all the time a new writer spends promoting themselves on FB, Twitter, etc., it seems for the most part to have about as much effect as putting a message in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean, where it gets lost among bumper stickers and pictures of kittens. And that's time that could be spent writing.

Rick said...

I agree with your (and potentially Franzen's) assessment about noise, but my problem is that his criticisms of so many things strike me as coming from a place of deep ignorance.

You don't have to like social media - heck, I've given up on blogging because I realized I HATED it - to see and understand the value, especially the value for those in the publishing community.

For every person posting an instagram'd photo of their breakfast on Twitter, there are people posting original, creative, compelling content - whether it be informative or merely entertaining.

And quite frankly, his assessment of e-books just sounds like the Old Guard refusing to accept the fact that the world changes and so does everything in it. That kind of attitude may be born out of resistance to change and general curmudgeonness (I just made that word up, you're quite welcome), but it's perpetuated by ignorance. Often willful ignorance.

Of course, Franzen cares not at all what I have to say about him since (1) I've never read his works and (2) I am saying this in a comment to a blog post, so I'm just another airheaded, attention-seeking 20something nattering about on the internet.

Brendan O'Meara said...

I find Franzen both endlessly fascinating and comically obtuse. I'll tune in every time he opens his mouth.

TheParadigmShuffle said...

Franzen pauses to think and in those pauses a great deal is happening. I met him briefly last year and your post sparked a post of my own with a small social media twist.

Katrina Woznicki said...

What a great blog post! One of your best. As someone who barely watches TV and enjoys her yoga, I think people get intimidated by silence, but some quiet time and deeper thinking would probably help with the anxiety and pressures so many of us feel. I disagree with Franzen's overall points about social media, but agree it can get noisy quickly. We have the power to switch off when we want to; it's just that many of us choose not to. I thought it was sad to see so many kids logging on to Facebook while I was vacationing in're in Mexico with dolphins! Get off the computer and go for a swim!

beethovenfan12 said...

Nathan, I read your posts every day, but have never commented on them. But I felt like I needed to on this one.
I'm very glad you were there to hear Mr. Franzen in person so you could impart this bit of wisdom to the rest of who weren't. It's a truth that we need to be a culture of thinkers and not mindless automotons(sp) staring at glowing screens. It's kinda scary because we begin it all at a pretty early age with all the electronic learning devices out there for toddlers.
I have to agree that Mr. Franzen makes a good point.


Eugene Scott said...

I have not watched television or listened to the radio (until last night when I had to have news about the Colorado fires burning south of us) since last February. The thinking and creativity that has unleashed has been fun and like being on a roller coaster.

I have discovered especially that I am more often now thinking my own thoughts rather than arguments and ideas planted there by the latest talking head. This has been true freedom. I'm not sure I will go back to being just a viewer or listener.

Yvette Carol said...

Nathan, you gave us a real insight into a person the whole world wants to make noise about!

Alana Roberts said...

Brilliant. Guys like him need guys like you to interpret them to the world. There's just too much disconnect between them and the common man but the common man needs them all the same.

Great post.

Diana said...

I was out walking on the beach earlier this evening and I saw a woman walking on the beach and talking on her cell phone. It reminded me of this post which I had read earlier today and it got me to thinking about what is really going on here.

Back in the early 90's I took a daytrip up to Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was a young woman excitedly calling her parents on her cell phone. (This was back when cell phones were very expensive and hardly anyone had them.)

At that time it was really cool to be able to call someone from the top of a mountain. And those of us around her where smiling and thinking how cool it was to do that.

Nowadays, it's more like: Jiminy Christmas can't you turn that dang thing off for a few minutes and enjoy the scenery. Sheesh.

So getting back to the woman on the beach walking with her head down and talking on her cell phone, she was missing an absolutely beautiful day at the beach; not a cloud in the sky, the water was a gorgeous blue green, a soft wind, warm water. Why bother taking a walk on the beach if you're going to stare at the sand and talk on your phone?

The other thing you miss when you have your ear or your fingers glued to your phone is the social interaction with strangers. This is more true in a small town or in a neighborhood, than in a large city, but when I am out walking on the beach or wherever, I smile at someone when I pass them. It's a brief acknowledgement that they exist.

Sometimes, if there is a reason to I have a little chat with someone on the beach. The last time I was there I met a woman who had moved down to Boca from the northeast. She was curious about a piece of coquina rock that was being pushed around by the surf. And so I told her about the rocks that are exposed at high tide and yadayadayada. If either one of us had been talking on a cell phone, that conversation wouldn't have taken place. Those little bits of social interaction are good for our health and well being.

And if I don't want to talk to anyone when I am out and about, then I don't make eye contact.

How sad it is that we've become so attached to the internet that we're missing the beauty around us and the chance at meeting someone new.

K. M. Walton said...

A tweet from Sarah led me to your post here. Just last night I said to my husband, "I think I need to unplug from the internet for a while. It's swallowing me up."

Like you, I'm a fan of technology and quiet, but lately, the quiet has been replaced with a head full of useless information. Not actual noise per say, just heaps and heaps of nothing.

Reading this solidifies last night's comment to the husband. I need to unplug. Let's see if I actually do it though....

Art Rosch said...

Well spoken, Nathan. Franzen doesn't need platform building, he doesn't need social media, he's the nation's
pre-eminent author. Why should he waste his time on Twitter and Facebook? OTOH, an obscurity such as myself must devote serious time to the Tweet and the Meet.

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

Loved this. So. Much. Thanks for posting it.

While I can't speak for Franzen, I can certainly own up, myself, to a fear of noise. Much as I value and enjoy technology and social media, it took me forever to convince myself to get on Twitter, and then I had to swear off it because it constantly broke up my mental processes.

Being the noise-fearing, contemplative type affects my reading style and relationship to ebooks, too. While I do read on my Kindle, it's endlessly frustrating because I don't like to just read one novel and move on to the next, I want to re-read parts and think through the story. It's hard on a Kindle to just flip back a few pages and go over a scene again, or to hunt out the particular section of the book that I'd like to re-read--perhaps five or ten times--after I've finished. If I didn't think to add the bookmark in the first time....

And all that's in spite of my wholehearted belief that ebooks are awesome, that they provide a lot of great opportunities for readers and writers alike.

I suspect that while the distracting world of connectivity has both benefits and dangers for everyone, it's uniquely hazardous to us introverted, meditative folk, and we just have to put hard limits on the noise levels in our own lives.

Though I must admit that for research, the perilous Internet is an introvert's paradise: nearly all the information you could ever want, without once picking up the telephone. ;)

Anonymous said...

I fear a world where people don't exercise and take care of themselves.

I fear a world where people don't get out. When I recently traveled to South America, I saw more Europeans than Americans, and I wondered why.

I fear a world where people spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing. Life is worth living, and while planning is nice, you still gotta execute.

Christina Carson said...

It's be a long time since I've read a blog that has so delighted me as much as yours on Jonathan Franzen. It is not often we see someone willing to open his heart and mind to what he might otherwise dismiss. It was both impressive and encouraging, for I, like Franzen, tend to see a good bit of darkness on the horizon, that we do need to explore and make conscious choices about. Hats off to you, Nathan. What a fine example to your readers.

Criticus said...

Very, very well said. He's a brilliant writer who produces amazing fiction. If turning off the noise is his secret, it's a message worth listening to.

emii. said...

I've got absolutely no idea who Franzen is, but I so get this post. I think we live in a world where we know so many things we might never have known before -- but we don't get to explore. Things come at our beck and call, but there's no need to discover any beautiful gems. We don't have to scour through old dusty books; we only have to sit on Pinterest for a couple of hours.

I kinda wish for rainy days with a fire place and an old bookshelf filled with lots and lots of books.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

You commute to work? Huh. I figured you worked from home.

jmarierundquist said...

I appreciate that he is a thinker.
I appreciate that he takes his business seriously, I really do.
However, I could do without the dripping disdain and judgment behind some of his comments. We all do what works for us, and if we don't, it probably isn't working.
I'm completely cool with him not liking social media, but I'm a little tired of hearing about it (however, it's not all his fault that I hear about it so often).
What I most appreciate is that you say he takes time before answering questions. That is just plain old smart.

Andrew Leon said...

Well, I agree with Franzen. I just did a few posts about this kind of thing, one of which was specifically about thinking and how we don't do it anymore. Or, at least, how solitude and thought are held in such low regard.

I think it's an introvert/extrovert conflict, and we live in an extrovert society, so people who think are seen as weird.

Taylor Napolsky said...

I think you just need to have the online presence, like have a blog or twitter account. But you don't necessarily have to update it all the time. Your time would definitely be better spent reading or writing.

Anonymous said...

And if an unpublished author had made the same comments he would be labeled cynical and difficult to work with.

Being critical of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, would be a death sentence to any unpublished author. Any literary agent, upon seeing this, would likely not even bother to read the author's submission.

But because this is Jonathon Franzen speaking, the rules are different.

Whenever I visit the website of a literary agent I see the suggestion that, as an author, I'm supposed to be able to 'seed and nurture a social media campaign' to support my book.


In my lifetime, I have never ever bought a book because I was influenced by somebody's social media campaign. In fact, when I see that, it turns me off.

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